Within England’s National Parks more than a quarter of land is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) meaning that it should provide refuge for the country’s rarest wildlife.
On average, just one in four SSSIs in National Parks are in an acceptable condition – far worse than those in the wider countryside.
Failure to protect national parks is having a devastating effect on iconic British birds such as lapwing, dunlin and snipe, whose numbers are declining faster in the Peak District than elsewhere – despite being ‘priority species’.
In Exmoor National Park, curlew and kestrel numbers have dramatically fallen while the ring ouzel or ‘mountain blackbird’ has become locally extinct.
Kevin Cox, chairman of RSPB criticised the "dismal performance" of these protected zones: "SSSIs protect some of our most nationally important wildlife, and you would expect these sites to be thriving within National Parks.
"The fact that these sites are, on average, in worse condition inside National Parks than outside is therefore extremely concerning." Habitats elsewhere within the parks could be in even worse condition.
Using 2017 Natural England data, RSPB researchers found that on average 26 per cent of SSSIs within English National Parks are in a favourable condition.
The North York Moors came in lowest, with just 11 per cent of SSSIs in good condition. The same protected zones were doing four times better in the wider countryside, according to the RSPB report in British Wildlife.
Isobel Mercer, a Senior Site Conservation Policy Officer at the RSPB, said: "People want to experience a countryside rich in plants and animals rather than barren moorland. National Parks are national assets that have a duty to protect and enhance our wildlife. However, evidence at the moment shows this just isn’t happening.
Sharp declines in biodiversity have raised questions over whether National Parks still merit their Category V protected landscape status.
In 1951 when the first National Park (the Peak District) was created the government drafted the ‘Stanford Principle’. This stated that when conservation and public enjoyment clash, conservation should take priority. One of the primary objectives of these parks was to provide refuge for threatened species which were once common across the English countryside.
However, human interests seem to be trumping conservation which is putting many species at risk, particularly upland waders, farmland birds and birds of prey.
Seven out of ten of England’s National Parks are upland in nature. Grouse shooting in the Peak District, the North York Moors, Northumberland and the Yorkshire Dales is one of the main reasons for wildlife decline in the uplands. Burning moorland to provide fresh shoots of heather for grouse as well as the illegal persecution of birds of prey were found to be particularly damaging.
The intensification of agriculture has also negatively impacted biodiversity. In the Peak District, the number of sheep grazing has increased fivefold since 1900 which has resulted in a loss of vegetation, increase in soil erosion and flooding incidents downstream.
The North York Moors’ freshwater pearl mussel – which can live to more than 100 – has not bred for twenty years at least and is now on the verge of extinction. Populations of wood warbler, pied flycatcher and salmon are also sharply declining.
Andy Wilson, chief executive of the North York Moors National Park agreed there were real issues facing wildlife in England’s parks but criticised the RSPB for making "partial and misleading use of statistics".
In June it was revealed in Parliament that 47 percent of SSSIs had not had an assessment by Natural England in the past six years. Wilson continued: "So the data may have been published in 2017 but only a small proportion will have been collected recently. It’s not up to date." He said the most pressing issues facing National Parks are climate change, extreme weather events and tree disease.
A spokesperson for Peak District National Park said the recovery of SSSIs could take decades: "UK upland SSSIs – in particular those of the Dark Peak area of the Peak District – have experienced significant historical damage from industrial air pollution, over-grazing and erosion, amongst other factors.
"This has taken place over centuries, and indeed prior to the designation of National Parks from the 1950s onwards."
Wildlife is plummeting all over the country and the 2016 State of Nature report found 56 percent of UK species declined between 1970 and 2013. The intensification of agriculture was the most significant driver of biodiversity loss.
The RSPB has called for more funding to improve monitoring of wildlife within the parks and welcomed the government’s National Parks review.
Cox said: "This review of England’s designated landscapes is a key opportunity for the UK Government to deliver on the ambitions set out in its 25 Year Plan for the environment. Ensuring that protected nature sites like SSSIs are in good condition should be at the heart of plans to improve National Parks for wildlife."
Mercer said these areas had "huge potential" to halt and reverse biodiversity loss in England.
Caroline Cotterell, Natural England’s Director for Nature and Landscapes said she is "committed to working with the owners and managers of SSSIs in England to safeguard and improve them. This is underlined in the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan, as we work to make sure we leave our environment in a better state than we found it."
Phoebe Weston is a freelance science and environment journalist. She grew up on an organic farm in Kent and is interested in rural land use, wildlife and farming. Read her blog Rewilding London here.
Image: Exmoor National Park. Shrinkin'violet, Flickr.